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Economics in Everything: Why were gangsters and police in Britain gunless?

by on November 16, 2014

I recently read an interesting article in by Alasdair Palmer in The Spectator about the “The rise and fall of the gunless gangster”. In the UK in the 20th century, there was a  that the lack of guns among criminals. This wasn’t due to the lack of availabillity of guns. In addition the penalties for being caught with an illegal firearm were significantly less severe then, than they are now. So why did so few criminals carry guns?

The reason for criminals not carrying guns reminds me of a game theory economics lesson.

  1. The life expectancy of criminals goes up when neither the police nor their own rivals shoot at them. The absence of guns benefits the criminal fraternity and society as a whole.
  2. Yet for each individual it is obviously advantageous to carry a gun, as this gives the individual an advantage over their counterpart.

This is a standard prisoner’s dilemma with the pay-offs illustrated in the following table.

Police/Criminals No Gun Gun
No Gun 8,8 0, 10
Gun 10, 0 1,1

In the above situation it is “rational” for both the criminal and the police to carry a gun, as in the gunless world both could profit from carrying a gun, knowing that the other will profit from carrying a gun it is logical that the other party also chooses to carry a gun. The situation where both parties are carrying a gun is the “nash equilibrium”.

For society, the optimal solution is where no individuals carry a gun. To get to this situation coordination between the players is needed. In addition a credible threat is required of retalliation against those that carry a gun is required.. Both coordination and a credible threat seem to have been present in 20th century Britain. Alasdair Palmer writes:

“The answer to those questions is something of a mystery. But it seems that, essentially, criminals in London and across Britain took the view that their collective interest in diminishing the level of violence was sufficiently great for them to punish individuals who broke the convention of not using guns. Furthermore, the criminal fraternity was close-knit enough for the credible threat of punishment from criminal colleagues to keep the convention more or less intact.”

In recent years this credible threat has gone. According to Prof. Paul Collier the arrival of criminal gangs from other countries may have led to the change in convention. Many foreign criminals thought it was stupid not to use guns. As soon as the convention could not be upheld, indigenous criminals had no incentive to remain unarmed themselves and reacted by becoming at least as violent.

An interesting policy question would be: Would we want organized crime to be more concentrated to make a “gunless crime convention” more likely?

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